Reinterpreting Mysticism and Messianism

Yehuda Liebes has revolutionized our understanding of the Zohar and underscored the relationship between kabbalah and Christianity.

Like Moshe Idel, Yehuda Liebes is both a student and critic of Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism. Among Liebes’ most important critiques of Scholem, is his assertion that the Zohar–the greatest work of medieval kabbalah–is a composite work, the creation of a group of Spanish kabbalists that included Moses de Leon (whom Scholem had identified as the sole author of the Zohar). The following is a review of two of Liebes’ books, Studies in the Zohar and Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, which represent some of his most important scholarship. Reprinted with permission from Le’ela (March 1994).

Yehuda Liebes is a representative of the Hebrew University’s new wave of kabbalistic research, best known through the writings of his colleague Moshe Idel.

These collections of his academic papers in English translation deal with the mythic dimension of Judaism, the composition of the Zohar and its messianism, Christian influence on the kabbalists, Sabbatean messianism, and the Sabbatean roots of [Hasidic leader] Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s techniques for rectifying sexual sins (tikkun hakelali).

Unlike his master, Gershom Scholem, Liebes claims that the mythical elements in kabbalah are already to be found in rabbinic aggadah [midrashic and talmudic narrative legend]:

"Essentially kabbalah is not a new creation but a reformulation, in different form, of the same myth that has been the very heart of the Torah since time immemorial. The mythical element did not erupt in the kabbalah, rather, that is where it was given systematic formulation and set within rigid frameworks, which may have in fact restrained and weakened its personal, spontaneous vitality."

This view is based on a very wide definition of myth: "A myth is a sacred story about the gods expressing that which the abstract word?cannot express." In other words, anything not overtly philosophical can be classed as myth. In fact there are fundamental differences between aggadah, in which many contradictory "mythic" images co‑exist, and the more authoritative role of true myth in a religion such as Christianity, which makes Liebes’ identification problematic.

Among the most stimulating aspects of Liebes’ work is his interpretation of the literary setting of the Zohar, the second‑century CE circle of Shimon ben Yochai, as representing a real messianic kabbalistic group flourishing in thirteenth‑century Spain around Rabbi Todros Halevi Abulafia of Castile. This kabbalistic group looked forward to a new messianic Torah, perhaps following the destruction of the last Crusader stronghold in Palestine in 1291 ("the death of the kings of Edom"), which would be understood not discursively but intuitively. Its kabbalistic activity was directed towards tikkun, the rectification of the human and Divine worlds.

Members of the group composed the various parts of the Zohar, in line with their different kabbalistic orientations The bulk of the textual material was under the final redaction of Moses de Leon, a younger contemporary of Todros Abulafia, who regarded his age as the one in which the mysteries of the Torah would be revealed.

Liebes is also quite convincing in showing Christian parallels to the language and images of the Zohar. He argues that some of the more original Christological elements of the Zohar were censored by Jewish copyists and are preserved by Christian kabbalists. He even finds something of Jesus in the literary persona of Shimon ben Yochai in the Zohar.

The question he leaves unanswered, however, is why members of the Zohar group, who were antagonistic to Christianity, should have been so ambivalent towards Jesus and have used overtly Christian ideas in formulating their system. He merely remarks about "the spiritual affinity," between Judaism and Christianity, which was indeed "among the causes for the animosity between them."

He also shows why Zionist thinkers have taken an interest in Sabbatean messianism [the 17th-century movement led by the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi], which they interpreted as a kind of proto‑Zionism. Liebes claims, however, that they have misunderstood the non‑political and purely religious character of Sabbatean redemption, which like Christianity, related essentially to the internal world of mysticism. Crypto‑Sabbateans even argued that in messianic times Jews would not go to the Holy Land.

In a very detailed article Liebes investigates how Nachman of Bratslav tried to rectify the defects of Sabbatai Zevi by rescheduling the latter’s failed messianism into a new messianic consciousness. This was centered round the life of Nachman himself and its highest religious value was in the personal tie of his followers to him. Nachman’s unique personal authority as tzaddik hador [literally, "the righteous man of the generation"], owes more to Christianity than to Judaism and his idea of the Messiah bringing redemption to the world through his suffering has a Sabbatean, and ultimately Christian, character to it.

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